Cooking by numbers

Everyone should be able to cook the basics, says Franka Philip. But which ones?

  • Photograph by Shirley Bahadur

Recently I read an interesting statistic in a tabloid magazine that said the average housewife knows how to cook just five dishes really well and sticks to those, in some shape or form, for most of her married life.

I dismissed it, because that statistic doesn’t apply to me, my mother, or many of my female friends. My mother – no doubt with a view to moulding her daughter into an independent woman – taught me how to cook from an early age. I learnt how to season meat and fish and prepare vegetables, and at Christmas time, I’d look forward to helping her cream the butter and sugar for the cake, mainly so I could lick the spoon at the end. I definitely knew how to cook more than five things by the time I was 18!

But that clearly unscientific stat got me thinking: if there were five dishes that women needed to know how to cook, what would they be? The Trinidadians I asked reeled off more or less the same dishes: pelau, macaroni pie, stewed or curried chicken, bakes (fried and roast), and callaloo.

Of course, the stakes are higher if that woman is an East Indian, because everybody expects that she can make roti. At one point, my friend Bonnie used to get teased by some of our male friends because she couldn’t make paratha roti. They would ask, “What kinda dulahin yuh is girl, how come yuh cyah make roti?”

So on a trip back to Trinidad, Bonnie made it her business to get a masterclass from her mother Vilma on making paratha roti, and she hasn’t been teased since.

Cuisine is culture-specific, so what happens when a Caribbean man marries a non-Caribbean woman? She certainly has to learn fast, as Tennessee chef Victoria Raschke discovered when she met her Trinidadian husband, Keifel.

“My particular Trini man has a pretty adventurous palate aside from ‘anything porridge-y’, which sadly for this Southern girl means he’s really not fond of grits or polenta. I definitely had to turn up the spiciness, which sometimes means two batches of things like tuna salad, salsa, or chili.

“I have learned to make a passable pelau and stew chicken. I’ve always dabbled in East Indian-style home cooking, and many of those translate with a suitcase-imported Chief curry base.”

But even a chef like Victoria has sometimes failed at recreating that Trini goodness. “In an attempt to offer some home comfort after a particularly difficult week, I took a stab at making doubles. The channa never quite came together and the barra were nearly inedible. Keifel was generous in his appreciation – of the effort,” she lamented.

When I asked Jamaican food writer Jacqui Sinclair, also known as the Juicy Chef, for her views on the five dishes, she stressed that it was more important to get the basics right.

“I know it sounds clichéd but the basis for all of my cooking is that it is made in love. Those who know me best will tell you it’s true,” she said. “I’m also all about the basics: do simple foods well before you get stressed with the complicated stuff.”


Franka’s six picks

With a little help from Jacqui and Victoria I’ve compiled this list of key things everyone should know how to cook – not just women.

Rice: It’s surprising how many people can’t cook rice. And with so many varieties available these days, it’s easier to get it wrong. “Learn the correct ways to cook different varieties; it’s not one method for all,” said Jacqui. “This is a mistake people often make and end up with rice that’s too soft, soggy, or hard.”

Eggs: The egg is one of the most versatile foods available. From simple omelettes to quick and easy egg salads to elaborate frittatas, a great egg dish can easily satisfy the sternest hunger.

Bread: Most people shy away from bread because it’s time-consuming to make, but both Jacqui and I believe the rewards are worth the time. “Nothing is more satisfying than kneading the dough, which is both an exercise and great for stress relief, then watching the miracle of yeast, water, and flour doing its work as it rises,” she said. I couldn’t agree more, but if you really want to avoid the hard work, invest in a breadmaker – they’re affordable and easy to use.

Chicken: In the Caribbean, chicken is king. One only has to look at the huge turnover of the KFC outlets in the region to see this. For home cooks, chicken is an extremely reliable ingredient. A whole roast chicken can last for days and the meat can be used in different ways. If you buy breasts, dice them for use in stir-fries; and for the more ambitious, the leg and thigh are ideal for boning and stuffing.

Soup: Sometimes a soup is the best way to use the ends of meat or the last vegetables in the fridge but you can make soup with practically anything. I’m partial to lentils, split peas, black beans – you get the idea: legumes! Here’s a tip: freeze some pea/bean soup to use as a base for more substantial soups like oxtail or lamb. For many, it goes without saying that soup must have dumplings. Jacqui reiterated this by illustrating why Jamaican women must know how to make “flawa” or dumplings, “Every Jamaican man loves dumplings in all forms: as a spinner in stew peas, fried with ackee and saltfish, and boiled in soup. Your dumpling has to be just right!”

Dessert: Avoid the urge to go out and buy an icebox cake – desserts aren’t difficult. In the Caribbean, we’re blessed with a variety of fresh fruit, and the easiest thing to make is a boozy fruit cocktail (unless children are involved). Or why not experiment with chocolate? Grenada, Trinidad & Tobago, and St Lucia all produce top-notch dark chocolate that the Europeans and Americans are swooning over, so take advantage!


You can read Victoria Raschke’s blog at or follow her on Twitter @arsculinaria.
Jacqui Sinclair writes a weekly food column in the Jamaica Observer. You can also follow her on Twitter @JuicyChefFoodie or check out her JuicyChef Facebook page.


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